"If this is a legitimate campaign, where Heins had actually duped school officials into endorsing him in a cloudy video that is currently locked on YouTube, it’s a really funny story. But if he’s still pulling a fast one on everyone, to the point where ABC affiliates are covering the story, it’s a genius form of media manipulation and is deserving of more attention."
"Kurt 4 Klerk" was one of the weirdest and wildest sagas of my life. I learned more about how the media, and politics, and the world itself works in one month than I have in the nearly one and a half decades since. This is probably the second most "viral" thing I ever did, and it was a doozie that almost landed me in a lot of very real trouble. I am very fortunate that ultimately it didn't. Much of it is a blur now, but in my best efforts to document and keep track of everything that happened with this, I can still say some things for a fact. After I pulled this stunt, it became the top story on the evening news in Milwaukee. It was the front page of more than one Wisconsin newspaper, and commentator Charlie Sykes compared me to Sacha Baron Cohen on his radio show. To this day I have a box in the storage room filled with various news papers that covered this story throughout Wisconsin. I can also say I am still pretty sure I was almost expelled from high school, I was told at some point the attorney general of the state of Wisconsin was informed of this and as a result I was then "looked into" for voter coercion and campaign finance violation, there was also talk of community service, and my school principal told me that I had stressed out the village's former president so much that he had become ill and that it was my fault.
Here is the context:
In high school I was a devoted acolyte of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and I considered satire, especially of the political variety, to be the highest form of art. I always planned on participating in a "senior prank" in high school, but instead of releasing crickets in the locker room or covering the principal's SUV in mud or something, I decided to legally run a classmate of mine for political office. You know, as a prank.
Oh boy. What followed was a story of irresponsibility all around, on the part of all parties involved. I, myself, was very irresponsible for doing this in the first place. This I will openly admit. I didn't realize what repercussions may have come of it, and the particular variety of fallout that occurs when you "meddle" in as serious a realm as actual politics. While I was very careful to never actually run afoul of existing laws (and to this day I stringently maintain I did absolutely nothing illegal) when something so much as resembling a threat to the status quo of an institution like Republican politics, people react very aggressively. Many grown adults wanted me hanged and quartered for this. and publicly called for my blood, so to speak.
I vividly recall WISN 12 News abruptly showing up at my house to interview me. I went outside in the dark, visibly startled, and gave a very nervous, very cautious interview in my front yard as I was made aware, live, of some of the machinations my prank had put in place behind the scenes. As the camera man, a sort of wily bald guy who had been around the block, was tearing down the setup I said something to the effect of "what the heck is going on? How did this make it to television news?" and he did a wizened chuckle and said "sometimes you kick a rock and you start an avalanche."
In Wisconsin at that time, in Waukesha county where I lived, we had a county clerk named Kathy Nickolaus who basically fucked up a Supreme Court election by losing track of, like, 14,000 votes omitting them from the final vote count. Later she revealed the fuck up and the election result was reversed and the whole thing was a national embarrassment. She was utterly incompetent at best and naked corrupt at worst. It should have been a bigger deal than it was. So, I wanted to embarrass her further. She basically faced no repercussions or consequences for her actions, so I figured the least I could do is privately humiliate her by making her personally process legal paperwork signaling that an unknown teenager was primarying her from the right. There is a huge difference between filing paperwork to run (anybody who is a real person can do this) and actually appearing on the ballot, which requires canvassing for and acquiring many signatures and filing other paperwork on top of that.
Kurt Heins was a classmate of mine who I had known since kindergarten. He was a rather humorous individual - sort of impish and bizarrely eloquent, like a Dickens-era pageboy or something. Throughout my schooling, he and I had an amusingly antagonistic relationship. Privately we were on good terms, but it made for a funny spectacle to have this sort of Tom and Jerry relationship, and I liked to goof on him in any ways I could find and this dynamic was well known and everybody, including Kurt, tended to get a kick out of this. It's hard to explain but it really wasn't mean-spirited. I'd say "Hey Kurt, you're a silly little fella, ain't ya??" and he would kind of sassily smirk back and call me a rumbumptuous ninnyhammer or a fribbling scoundrel or some other odd old-timey retort and people would think "oh ho ho, look at those two weirdos going at it again!" I decided to bid farewell to Kurt and this ongoing fake feud by tricking him into legally running for office. All this required was saying "let's film a fake campaign video for something and it'll be funny." As he enjoyed this stuff, he happily went along and at the end I said "oh, let's also film you signing this paperwork" so I presented him a declaration to run for the office and he signed it. Then I said "this was legally binding paperwork and if I mail it off you will technically be a candidate for this office," at which point he responded with a kind of vintage Bill Cosby eye-roll and sarcastic head bob. I told him that if he really didn't want me to file it, I wouldn't, but he said go ahead. So I did.
Much to my surprise, within days of it being mailed off, I found an article on the local news site about a candidate filing to run against Kathy Nickolaus. Lo and behold, it was about Kurt. Me simply mailing the paperwork and it being filed merited a whole ass news article, for some reason. As a reminder, any real person can file to run for any political office. That alone is typically not newsworthy because it doesn't really mean anything. I could file to run for president and you would never know. So, how this even made it to a news reporter is beyond me, and how it made it from a news reporter past the editors all the way to the front page of the local news confounded me then and it still does. Having it written up like that really gave it an air of authenticity that it didn't deserve. I remember feeling a cold wave of "what does this mean?" when I first read it, which I quickly shook off because still, nothing illegal had occurred and the only thing the act of filing ran afoul of was good judgment.
At first I had a grand design to continue this prank by planning live events and mailing out many press releases and asking many local politicians for endorsements, just to see what would happen. This was very funny, but also interesting, to me because Kurt still wasn't a real candidate. He was, to outsiders looking in, an obnoxiously ambitious little Young Republican putting the cart before the horse. He did not have the signatures. None. I still have one of the general press releases that I was sending out to people like Scott Walker and David Clarke.
The very first thing I remember doing was posting an article to the Menomonee Falls Patch under a pseudonym. Back then you could post opinion pieces and they would appear with the other articles. I don't know why this was so easy to do, but it was. Instead of posting an op-ed, I just posted something that read like a very biased news article. All these years later, it's still up!
I wrote it with all the gusto of a Fox News reporter. I pulled out all of the stops as said with the unearned confidence and authority of Tucker Carlson that the election was pretty much already decided in Kurt's favor just simply because he had announced. I wrote unsubstantiated platitudes like this one:
As it is too early in the race to accurately gauge voter opinions, it is widely speculated by readers of the Associated Press that the support of Kurt Heins could potentially top 59%, easily putting him ahead Kathy Nickolaus and in the top tier of candidates for the office.
That was based on nothing, and the hyperlink included just linked to the front page of The AP's website. The article included quotes from my classmates without describing who they were, This was basically all fake news before "fake news" became a common phrase in the human lexicon.
The media skipped the part where they did any due diligence and just started reporting on this like it was fully legitimate, which blew my mind. It did make for good copy, yes. But just read that shit and tell me that it doesn't immediately come across as not even particularly sophisticated satire. But that didn't seem to matter. The first round of press this got was a flurry of news articles and, yes, opinion pieces from old white guys sounding off on how they felt about this. What was missing from all of it was "is this maybe a joke, though?" It was ridiculous. I also had a Facebook page that I was running and I was responding to all messages in character as Kurt's unnamed "campaign manager and chief strategist." I kept getting more and more ridiculous, but the press just dug their heels in deeper.
Eventually, WISN 12 seems to have been the news source that questioned what this was all about. Then Mediaite wrote a deeper dive:
Meet Kurt Heins, The 17 Year Old High Schooler Running For County Clerk As A Prank (Or Not) [UPDATE]
Curiously, all the articles that were posted that seemed to legitimatize this run for office before the prank reveal have disappeared from the internet. All that remains are the ones declaring it was a prank.
There was so much more written about this all but, again, so much of it has completely vanished. The story itself seemed to disappear into the ether overnight. I have the hard copies from before people caught on, though. History is written by the victors, I suppose.
I never have trusted the media again after this because I got to experience first hand how much the real story gets bastardized and then just passed along as fact. We had articles written that omitted my role in this story completely and depicted this as a solo thing Kurt did by himself, and some had me as a hapless doofus who got in over his head, and some had me as a cackling mastermind rubbing my hands together. Like I said earlier, Charlie Sykes had very nice things to say about me. Commentator Mark Belling did not, and some guy named James Wigdersen said very bad things about everyone. It was just very strange but mostly fascinating.
I think it was ultimately not good for me in the long run, because I was too young to elegantly handle and navigate myself through something of this magnitude. I also kept trying to make lightning strike again because I had so much fun. The closest I came was Little Face Mitt a year later. Then after that, much to my dismay, nothing like this ever happened again.
I was very much rattled by the vague threats I had received at the time so I backed down without much protest. I was made to take down the campaign video I made due to the high school principal claiming that keeping it public would violate campaign finance laws and I would have to pay thousands of dollars. People got very creative in finding ways to spook me to shut me down.
My fondest memory of this, however, is that I became something of a folk hero within my high school. I was told years after that the political science teachers devoted a day of their class to teaching about that event. The teachers who most had my back were the teachers of the English department, who unanimously seemed to agree that I got railroaded.
I was informed near the end of my senior year that I had been selected to win an award that I would receive at the senior honor's ceremony. It was the "Jonathan Swift Award for Satire." Apparently they had created the honor that year and that I would be the first recipient. Then they retired it the next year. I remain the sole recipient of that award. It meant a lot.
On my final day of high school, Graduation Day, after I strolled across the stage in my gown holding my diploma, I was approached by my high school principle. He told me how much he loved the whole prank. Yes, the high school principal who threated to expel me and who told me I made the former village president sick with stress, took my hand, smiled warmly at me, and said "that whole Kurt 4 Klerk thing reminds me of something I would have done in high school."
Oh, is that so? Yeah right, man.
(That same guy would later be forced to resign as a school superintendent for credit card misuse. A real paragon of virtue he is, huh?)